Rep. John Lewis on MLK Memorial

Rep. John Lewis, sometimes called the "conscience of the Congress," joined the civil-rights movement as a boy in Alabama—drawn into action by the powerful eloquence of a young Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the days of the Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. Lewis would go on to become an icon of the movement in his own right—organizing sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in Tennessee, risking his life as a Freedom Rider on segregated bus lines across the South and leading 600 peaceful marchers into the teeth of a savage attack by Alabama state troopers on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, on what would come to be known as "Bloody Sunday." On Nov. 13, Lewis spoke at the groundbreaking of a memorial to Dr. King on the National Mall in Washington—the first memorial on the Mall for a nonpresident and the first for a black man. Representative Lewis spoke to NEWSWEEK's Daren Briscoe about Dr. King and his memorial. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: Memorials are such permanent things. Does a memorial to Dr. King, particularly one on the National Mall, feel like an ending?
John Lewis:
It doesn't feel like an ending, because Martin Luther King Jr. is one of us, he's of our generation; he was part of contemporary history. He's not George Washington, Abraham Lincoln or Thomas Jefferson, so when many of us, including some who are much younger than I am, visit the Mall, we'll be able to read the words of Jefferson and say, "That's what he said." We'll read about Washington and say, "That's what he did." We'll go to the Lincoln memorial and say, "That's what he stood for." But when we get to Dr. King's memorial, it becomes real--because many of us were there. It's like feeling and touching and knowing that his words will still inspire people today and will inspire people for generations unborn. I like that Dr. King's memorial is between Jefferson's and Lincoln's because in my estimation, he must be looked upon as one of the Founding Fathers of the New America. He made real what Jefferson and Lincoln tried to do. He put flesh on the bones.

How did it feel to be at the groundbreaking of a memorial to someone who was such a public icon, but also such a personal inspiration to you?
It was very emotional for me. I first met Dr. King in 1958 when I was 18 years old, and being in his presence changed my life. I first heard his voice three years earlier on an old radio, and it was so inspiring and so uplifting that I got involved with the civil-rights movement. I marched with Dr. King. I went to jail with Dr. King. I was with Dr. King when he came to speak at the March on Washington. To hear him speak on that day on the Mall, and to come back for the groundbreaking of his memorial on the Mall, it was just too much. I never dreamed a day would come when he would be so honored or when any African-American would be so honored on the National Mall.

What do you think of Michael Eric Dyson's argument that that there's been so much focus on the poetry of Dr. King's "I Have a Dream" speech over the years that we've forgotten his sharper critiques of American militarism and inequality?
Sometimes I do feel like people place too much emphasis on that speech because it's so well known. Listen to other speeches of his, especially the one he made at Riverside Church on April 4, 1967, in New York City when he spoke out against war in Vietnam. I was there that night, and there were hundreds of religious leaders there: ministers, priests, rabbis and nuns. He talked about the bombs we were dropping in Vietnam, and said that those same bombs would explode one day here in America. He tried to say that America must use instruments of peace and lay down tools of violence. To have a memorial to—not to a general or a soldier but to a man of peace, love and nonviolence I think helps to educate and sensitize people to the fact that we not only honor and salute men of military battles, but we can honor and salute a man who used the way of love, nonviolence and peace to bring about change.

Do you think Dr. King would be disappointed or pleased with the state of race relations in the United States today?
I think Dr. King would be gratified by the changes we've make as a nation and society, but I think he'd be disappointed that in spite of all the progress we've made, we can still have a [Hurricane] Katrina, we can still have hundreds of thousands of citizens living in poverty, we can still have an unbelievable disparity between the haves and the have-nots. I think he'd be very disappointed that we still have no comprehensive health care in this country, and that we're still one of the most violent nations in the world.

Do you worry at all that a memorial to Dr. King on the National Mall will lull people into thinking his dream has been fully realized, that no more work remains to be done?
I'm not worried, because I think with the memorial and with a national holiday on his birthday, people will continue to study Dr. King, will continue to be inspired by him, and will find out what they can do to continue to push and pull to make the dream a living reality.